Members of the Senate Agriculture Committee pressed USDA deputy secretary nominee Xochitl Torres Small Wednesday on how the department can streamline the delivery of its programs and better support underserved producers.

Torres Small, a former House member from New Mexico and the department's current undersecretary for Rural Development, was nominated by President Joe Biden in February. The position was previously held by Jewel Bronaugh, who stepped away in January to spend more time with her family.

At her confirmation hearing, Torres Small said she would focus on finding ways to simplify USDA processes, such as by removing match requirements, and making sure USDA staff have the training and tools to deliver programs more efficiently. She said her priority is to ensure underserved producers and small farmers understand they can apply for programs, as well.

"It’s our job to make sure that farmers know, and underserved people in rural America, know that our programs are meant for them," Torres Small said. "That means making sure that we’ve got the right approach to customer service. That means finding the things that are cumbersome and making them more accessible."

She also said updating the USDA's technology systems would improve program delivery, and that communication between Washington, D.C., and field staff would be key to making things flow smoothly.

When asked by Sen. Roger Marshall, R-Kan., whether the agency can create a "uniform" application process that would allow producers to apply to multiple USDA programs, Torres Small said there's a "lot of work to do" to improve applications. She said, however, that creating one application for all programs could get "quite complicated" due to major differences between the programs.

Deputy secretaries essentially coordinate and supervise delivery of programs in the USDA. Marshall summed up the position as the "Chief Operating Officer" of the USDA.

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The committee's ranking member, Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., told Agri-Pulse that he would "very definitely" be voting in favor of Torres Small's nomination.

“I think she’s done a very, very good job in her present role and has prepared herself to take over a big job," Boozman told reporters after the hearing. "I’ve got all the confidence in the world in her, so we’re going to work hard to get her confirmed as soon as possible.”

Sen. Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M., told Agri-Pulse Torres is an "excellent" choice for the position. He said she is willing to work with "everyone" and said he often hears support for her in his conversations with New Mexico producers.

"When I’m traveling into rural parts of New Mexico — some of the most conservative counties — farmers, ranchers, producers always ask about her," Luján said. "'How’s she doing?’ ‘I wish her well.’ ‘She’s in my prayers.’ I think that just goes to show her deep respect for the people that she’s honored to represent and work for."

Torres Small told reporters that she would have big shoes to fill. She called Bronaugh an "incredible mentor" who taught her that if you "put people first," the "right policies" can follow. She hopes to take this approach.

“I know that the Department of Agriculture is a department for everyone and I want to be committed to making sure that happens,” Torres Small said.

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